Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Ugliest Woman In The World

Today's post was inspired by a suggestion from one of my lovely commenters - I have forgotten who (sorry!), but thank you anyway for the idea.

Mary Ann Bevan was known as the Ugliest Woman in the World. She suffered from acromegaly, a condition in which her pituitary produced too much growth hormone, which led to deformity of her face and abnormal growth, as well as headaches and joint problems. After the death of her husband, she was forced to support herself and her four children by working in the freak show at Coney Island in the 1920s.

Mary Ann Bevan
In 2006, Hallmark produced and sold a greetings card in the UK which featured a picture of Bevan and the legend: "When the screen went back, he was to always regret the words . . . ‘I’ll go for number three, Cilla.’”

Dr Wouter de Herder, a Dutch endocrinologist who was on holiday in England, recognised the photograph and complained to Hallmark. According to theis article, he said: "“I immediately recognised the photo as I had just written an article about Mary Ann Bevan... She was in several [freak] shows in England and then later in the United States, but she led a miserable, painful life. I simply don’t think its right in 2006 to use her image to create a sick birthday card. I feel that this card is insulting to all patients who suffer from the same condition.”

Ironically, his words in fact echoed those of the famous neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing eighty years earlier, who attempted to treat Mary Ann Bevan towards the end of her life. He wrote to Time magazine in 1927, complaining of the way it had made fun of Bevan: “This unfortunate woman who sits in the sideshow of Ringling Brothers [...] has a story which is far from mirth-provoking,” wrote Dr Cushing.“She, previously a vigorous and good looking young woman, has become the victim of a disease known as acromegaly . . . Being a physician, I do not like to feel that Time can be frivolous over the tragedies of disease.” Bevan died just six years later.

I've written before about the difficulties facing women with acromegaly, but I think this story really hammers the message home. In eighty years, it seems that although our ability to treat this debilitating disease has improved greatly, our attitudes to its sufferers have hardly changed.

Hallmark pulled the card from stores, but not before its communications manager issued this memorable statement: “Once we found that this lady was ill, rather than simply being ugly, then the card was [...]withdrawn immediately, as it would breach anything we would do in terms of taking the mick out of anyone who was poorly.”

Ugly yet healthy people - be warned.


  1. Wow... poorly done, hallmark..

  2. I seem to recall that Abraham Lincoln may have suffered from the same disease, but did not live long enough to exhibit all of the effects of untreated acromegaly.

  3. Makes me cry. I have Cushing's. I know what is like to have your beautiful body and face deform into something unbearable to see. The world can be so cruel. I have enormous amounts of pain and physical limitations because of Cushing's but people, even my own relatives who don't understand just think I'm a fat person who lost interest in caring for myself.

  4. Ditto on the Cushings. I too have it and I too am suffering it's ugly effects on my body. Don't judge a book by it's cover has taken on new meaning.